A hero stands up to cowboys

In an inaugural address to 2,000 soldiers in the Ottawa Congress Centre in February 2005, Gen. Rick Hillier declared: "When Canadian troops go overseas, they expect sex." Within a split second, he corrected himself: "success."

It was clearly a slip of the tongue. But, according to someone who was there, it also fit the mood of the room. After years of feeling like an emasculated army of peacekeepers, Canadian soldiers finally had a real fighting man at their helm. No more girlie-man peacekeeping, boys! We're gonna make war!

The transformation of the Canadian military into a war-oriented force -- a partner in George W. Bush's freewheeling War on Terror -- was the product of the influential Hillier, with the backing of the Harper government.

Hillier's testimony last week before a parliamentary committee highlighted just how dangerous this transformation has been.

It's now clear that Ottawa ignored unmistakable warnings (including from its own diplomat on the scene, Richard Colvin) that the Canadian military was transferring detainees to situations in which they would likely be tortured.

Far from refuting Colvin's allegations that his warnings were ignored, Hillier essentially confirmed Colvin's point about the indifference of Canadian officials to the fate of Afghan detainees. Testifying that he hadn't read Colvin's emails until recently, Hillier insisted that he wouldn't have acted any differently if he had read them at the time, since nothing in them would have alerted him "to either the fact of torture or very high risk of torture."

If Hillier was unaware of the risk of torture, it was only because he wilfully ignored compelling evidence -- and not just from Colvin, who cited Red Cross officials in Afghanistan.

Even before Colvin sent his first warning, Louise Arbour, former justice of the Canadian Supreme Court and at the time UN high commissioner for human rights, wrote a March 2006 report on Afghanistan, noting "serious concerns" over reports of torture, which are "common."

That same month, the U.S. state department reported that Afghan authorities "routinely" torture detainees, "pulling out fingernails and toenails, burning with hot oil, sexual humiliation and sodomy."

Afghanistan's own government watchdog, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, reported in 2004: "Torture continues to take place as a routine part of police procedures."

These damning reports were summarized in an article entitled "Canada's role in torture," written by University of Ottawa law professor Amir Attaran, in the Ottawa Citizen in April 2006. When Colvin started sending his urgent warnings a month later, they should have simply confirmed what Hillier and other officials already knew from highly credible sources.

This suggests that the disregarding of Colvin's warnings is part of a larger problem -- the adoption of a Bush-like War on Terror mentality in the top ranks of our military and government. It seems that respect for international law was replaced with a lawless pursuit of bad guys -- "evildoers" to Bush, "detestable murderers and scumbags" to Hillier.

This cowboy mentality is further demonstrated in the Harper government's attempt to smear Colvin as a Taliban sympathizer.

Colvin has demonstrated a rare level of courage and integrity, risking his career to protect some of the world's most vulnerable people from torture and to bring Canada's leaders back into line with international law. He's the guy who reported the schoolyard bully.

Neither Taliban nor girlie man, Richard Colvin is a person with real guts -- indeed, in my books, something of a national hero.

Linda McQuaig is author of It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet.

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